Finding Fiddy: Swimming Is Hard, Especially If You Can't Float
"Good morning, Fidencio," Kathleen said as I entered the aquatics office of ClubSport San Jose. It was 9:00am and I was there for my first swim lesson. Standing near the front door, the aquatics center looked huge. Large windows lined the farthest wall, letting light spill over the lesson and lap pools. "Let's start with a tour. I do this any time a new swimmer — especially a kid — walks in for their first lesson," she explained as she led me around the perimeter, pointing things out. (Lifesavers: check) "It gets them acquainted with the aquatics center and makes it less intimidating."
It worked. I didn't admit it on the spot, but the size of the place had gotten to me and that brief walk-around helped the butterflies settle. The tour ended at the lesson pool, and with the formalities over, it was time to tighten up my swim trunks and get wet.
Kathleen is basically a fish, so before even dipping my toes in the water, I felt like half the battle of overcoming my fear was already won. Currently the aquatics director at ClubSport San Jose, she grew up swimming in Vermont and competed from the time she was six years old until she was 17. Add to that her extensive teaching background, and I don't think I could've been in better hands.
We began that first lesson with breathing exercises, the foundation of swimming. In the first drill, I submerged my face low enough in the water that it covered my mouth, exhaled for four seconds, came out still exhaling, took a breath, and started to exhale again as I went back under. The second drill was similar. I stood against the pool wall, torso parallel to the surface, exhaled underwater for a four count, and turned my head to the side for a breath as one would when swimming. Those exercises may sound simple, especially for experienced swimmers, but it just didn't feel natural to me. Kathleen put it best: "Breathing out underwater is complicated enough. Do it in a horizontal position, and it just scrambles your brain."
My first real challenge in the pool came up next. For many, floating is the easiest and most relaxing thing to do in the water. For me, however, floating signifies a real possibility of drowning. So when Kathleen asked me to move farther into the lane to try a face-down float, I made a line straight towards the wall because I was nervous and needed to know I could grab onto it for safety.
Kathleen stopped me. "You can just stand if you need to," she said through a smile.
She had a point. The water level on that side of the pool was only three-and-a-half feet deep. More than that, though, the edge of the pool had been my comfort zone for the past 25 years. By telling me I couldn't grab onto the wall, she wasn't forcing me to do something I didn't want to, but rather challenging me to let go of what had actually been holding me back.
I took in a huge breath and went for it. The goal to float for five seconds. I stood up moments later, gasping desperately for air.
"OK, not bad," she said, "but maybe try to last for more than one second."
Float attempt after float attempt followed and with each I gained a smidgen more of comfort. The rest of the lesson whizzed by. Those 30 minutes, though, left me physically and mentally exhausted.
ClubSport San Jose's aquatic center is quite large and includes a lesson and aqua fitness pool and a lap pool.
I returned for my second lesson the following week, which included more floating, both face-down and on my back. Floating, I discovered, is my Achilles heel.
"Oh, you're a sinker!" Kathleen said after one of my many failed attempts.
She tried to help me relax in the water but I kept tensing up, which caused my hips and legs to sink. The black float position made me especially nervous because I didn't know when the water might cover my mouth and nose.
I think Kathleen wanted me to feel like I accomplished something that day, so she asked me to push off into a face-first float and exhale underwater in a controlled manner. When she felt I was comfortable enough with that, she began to pull me through the water and asked me to kick to add propulsion. Moving in the water felt much more natural than trying to stay still. Still, I finished that lesson feeling more frustrated than anything. I'm reasonably athletic and coordinated, but I couldn't nail the basic body mechanics that swimming requires and that annoyed me.
"Is it possible that my legs just can't float?" I asked Kathleen as I stepped into the pool for my third swim lesson. I had practiced a couple of times during the week, but my legs sunk each and every time.
"Yeah, it's totally possible," she said. "But that doesn't mean you can't be a great swimmer. My daughter's an excellent swimmer and she can't float."
Part of the reason why I had terrible form in the water — besides my dense legs — is that I just didn't have proper body position and balance. To help me find both, Kathleen implemented a training system she has developed over the years. I promised I wouldn't go into specifics about it because she's still working on it, but it involved putting a buoy between my legs to train my hips to stay up and my legs to stay closer together for a more streamlined approach. The hope was that I would commit that feeling to muscle memory once the buoy was removed.
We also worked on my kicks — "Less bend in the knees" … "Tighten the quads a little more" … "Point your toes like a ballerina" — and on incorporating strokes. And I was supposed to do all that while remembering to exhale underwater, which I repeatedly forgot to do.
Towards the end of that lesson, Kathleen asked me to go as far down the lane as I could and I got nearly halfway. (Disclaimer: I used the buoy to keep my legs up.) For the first time in three lessons, I emerged from the pool feeling a small sense of accomplishment. It provided just enough encouragement to make me believe that one I'll eventually be able to swim.
Left: Motivational message as I exited the men's locker room. Right: Goggles. Can't swim, but at least I can see underwater.